There is a line early in Clematine Wamariya’s memoir that is gutting in its seeming banality: “When I was a regular child, I lived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I was a precocious snoop.”
Its power comes from what anyone who cracks the cover of The Girl Who Smiled Beads already knows: that her regular life would very soon disintegrate into an unimaginable horror. Years and oceans removed from the worst acts of humanity, what of the regularity Wamariya wishes to achieve now? What does life after war look like?
The Rwandan Genocide made Wamariya a refugee, but we—the media, the Global North, desperate for objects of sympathy and opportunities for saviorship—have made her a “genocide princess.” Neither are Clemantine Wamariya.
A Beautiful Perspective talked with Wamariya by phone from San Francisco ahead of the next leg of her book tour to talk not about war, but what comes after and how we prevent it from happening again. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m sure you’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately?
Yes, lots of interviews.
Do you get a lot of the same kinds of questions in the interviews?
Yes, again, I think people love … the story of war. That’s the questions that I’ve been getting a lot.
One thing I think does have to be asked is, where do you draw that line, or find that place between being an advocate or making sure people know that this has happened and being you, being a person? How do you find that balance?
I am still learning to find that balance, because I am the one who decided to do this. No one forced me. And so everyday, I find a different way to be able to mind this thing that I’ve decided to put myself in to. Slowly, I’ve been finding different ways to share myself beyond just talking about what happened to me. Let me backup for a minute.
I really believe that stories are just treasure, a map or eyes to understand life. And the story of war has had its place, and the story of what comes after has its place as well. And my hope is to truly connect the dots between the story of war and the story of what comes after.
When you get those same questions, over and over again, is it ever sort of frustrating? Do you understand their need to ask that?
Yeah. I get that. I get those questions so much, to the point where people are so numb to my emotions, like how I’m reacting, how it’s hurting me. And I feel like maybe … the reporters, they’re asking me because they’ve never gone through it? That’s why it’s easy for them to … if you’ve been raped, you don’t go around in the front of everybody and just ask them to tell them about all the details about your rape. And if you do, you have a way to carry it.
War is like that. It’s rape of your everything. And when people try to understand you, they’re using a format that I’ve seen … you go and dig and dig. But what is it to dig when someone’s crying? What is it to dig when someone says, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore?”
I’ve left a lot of interviews because I couldn’t go into the personal details of my own nightmare. And it’s heartbreaking, because I really want this book to reach far away. So when I talk about my emotions, and when I talk about it being traumatizing for me to get on television, for me to get on the radio, for me to write … I’ve been called that I’m being dramatic. I’ve been called that I’m being a diva. This other person, they commented on the book, and said that I was complaining. And I’m like, I am six years old. I lost everything I’ve ever known my whole life, and I share with the world. And for someone to say that I was complaining? Of course I’m complaining!
It’s a different kind of story. We need to be so utterly gentle. And I feel like the minute the camera picked up what happened in Rwanda, everyone saw it so many times and became numb to it. And that’s also Burundi, and also Congo.
We have become so numb to each other’s end of life.
This is my crazy theory: War comes because of so many things, but one of them is sharing. Because war takes and takes without asking.
Have you been doing a lot of travel to promote the memoir?
I’ve been doing it since April 24. I started in Brooklyn. Actually, it was really exciting. I partnered with this wonderful woman. She has a mobile library, and she has about 900 books that are written by black women from all over the world, and you bring a book and take a book. So I launched the book with her in Brooklyn, and then New York. And then New York to DC, and then Chicago, then Michigan to Kansas City, Kansas City to Toronto. From Toronto, a bunch of stops in California.
It seems to me you enjoy travel.
Is it different with a job behind it?
It is, and it’s not. I love traveling because I’m meeting new people, I’m bumping into new stories, I’m seeing different architecture. I’m seeing different expressions. My favorite place of all my tour was Kansas City. I loved Kansas City. People in Kansas City are awesome! They always complain about Middle America being this or that, it’s a lie. People in Kansas City were ready to just welcome me. From the minute I landed at the airport, the minute that I got to the hotel I met this amazing man who has been working at the hotel for years. He was brilliant. Helped me with my suitcase, got me into the hotel … was ready to just shower me with love. He treated me like his granddaughter, and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced. In Kansas City. In a hotel. And the women’s group that I spoke to, they were, like, on it. They were like we’re here to get women, and we’re here to support you. And I was like, “Yes, let’s support each other.”
I used to travel for fun and on behalf of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and speaking, but now I have this book that I’m sharing, you know? I’m excited to take the book as a tool to start an intimate conversation about how do we share.
This is my crazy theory: War comes because of so many things, but one of them is sharing. Because war takes and takes without asking. They take life, they take property, they take resources, and that’s not sharing. That’s taking. And so I’d really love to use the book as a tool to learn how to share, all over the world. I’m going to be able to say, let’s talk about war before it happens. And let’s talk about what happens after.
There’s one place you mentioned traveling to in the memoir that I have recently been to and really wanted to ask you about: Disneyland.
You said you loved Disneyland. I completely agree. I fucking adore Disneyland. Have you been to Disney World yet?
You know, I’ve not, and I don’t think I will.
Oh man. It’s crazy! It’s literally like a world. They have their own fire department, transit system.
I don’t think I want to go there.
It’s almost overwhelming! Have you been back to Disneyland recently?
Yes! I was at Disneyland maybe like a year ago with my dear friend Linda. Linda is this magical being. We had so much fun. That’s the only place I eat cotton candy. I don’t eat candy.
You know what? Disneyland is not only a place you enjoy. For me, it’s a place that shows how the world works. It’s an instruction of how the world is made up; how everything is all made up. Everybody acts so serious about how it’s all made up. It makes me mad, sometimes. I’m like, “Excuse me, yeah, this is all made up, thank you. Don’t try to make me feel like it’s frozen, it’s written in stone.” No it’s not written in stone; someone carved it in it. Stone is a stone, and someone writes in it. That is made up. Do you know what’s not made up though?
Water! Sky! Moon! Stars! That is the creation. We are among creation. Ocean. You could try to make a pool, but you can’t get close to the ocean. If a man makes an ocean, I’m so excited for that. If that happens tomorrow, that’s where I’m going to go. I’m going to take everybody serious now, now it’s all made up.
Is Pirates of the Caribbean still your favorite ride?
I’ve gone on the ride three times. I love it so much because it reminds me of … it’s kind of like the Indiana Jones of our time. It’s kind of mystic. I love the mystic; I love the part of our storytelling that is mystic, a bit more spiritual. That’s my kind of storytelling. That’s the kind of storytelling I grew up in. Not like “and then this man did this, and then this man shot this man” and that’s too much drama.
Let’s talk about water speaking. Let’s talk about the rain coming down and spending time with a woman, and asking her not to cry because that’s rain’s job. Let’s talk about the sun whispering; let’s talk about thunder. Crying louder than I should, and the thunder coming and saying, “Excuse me, that’s my job. Thank you.”
That is the world we are about to create. Everybody’s fairy tales are about to come out, because I’m going to encourage it so much!
You talk so much about sharing instead of taking. Why do you think we don’t see that?
Because we operate from a scared mind. This is mine, this is yours, this is not ours. My mom taught me that everything is ours. Everything is ours, and it’s better when we share it; it tastes better when we share it.
We’re here to share. We’re here to share. We’re here to share.
Everyone trying to take really seems to be the engine that drives problems in the world.
People are going to reclaim their lives. They are going to remember that there is land beneath them that grows things, that creates things. People are going to remember that they don’t need someone abusing them to feed their family. They don’t need someone making them feel less than human to be able to pay their rent. People already know, they already are coming to that conclusion. I’m just saying it out loud.
I’m operating in an Afrocentric ideology that welcomes all, that is invested in all and that is a full circle. The things that I am saying, I did not just come up with it. I’m extending it forward. I’m not special, I’m just extending.
What is next? You have this huge slate of what comes after the book, and who Clemantine wants or needs or desires to be. Do you know what comes next?
I do, but I can’t tell you.
I can’t tell you, but I can get you very excited about it. It will involve sharing a meal, sharing tea and feeling, people practicing feeling. And smelling, and seeing, full sensory experience. That’s what’s happening next.
I’m about to welcome people who have been in this journey with me, who have helped me mend my heart and mend my breath, they are about to come together with me, and we are about to take our human beyond survival.
I am so excited. I am so excited, because we are going to remind people of their beautiful human. Because their beautiful human was hijacked, and abused, and neglected. That’s what’s about to happen. Because The Girl Who Smiled Beads is gems, all gems. All kinds of rhinestones, all kinds of diamonds. That’s what The Girl Who Smiled Beads is all about.
And that, you can not buy it. You can not sell it. You just have to feel about it [laughs]. I’m so excited! You’re like what is that, is that a new Disneyland? Yes. And it’s right in your head, right in your heart.
A free Disneyland, that anyone can enjoy.
Yeessss! Yes! I’m about to do that.
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